Salman Khan once talked to me about suicide over a mug of hot coffee. The coffee was black, without sugar. And strong, like his views. Given the actor's nonconforming lifestyle and the types of films he makes, few among even his most diehard fans would credit Salman with the kind of opinion he expressed on this sensitive subject.
The country was reeling under a horrific season of suicides. Debt-ridden farmers were killing themselves in drought-affected districts. Students unsure of passing their board exams were consuming poison or leaping to their deaths even before their results were declared. Struggling film and TV actresses and popular models (mostly women) were hanging themselves in rented apartments over unwanted pregnancies and love affairs gone sour. Young housewives were setting themselves on fire unable to withstand the torture of husbands and in-laws for not bringing enough dowry or for not bearing a male child. Jobless youth were drowning themselves. And other people, depressed to be suddenly diagnosed with cancer or AIDS, were ending their lives in hopelessness.
So what if you failed your board exams at 17? How does it matter if you got ditched at 22? That's no age to give up and die. Salman Khan
I had invited journalism students from nearby colleges to visit the newspaper I edited because Salman was to be our guest editor of the day. They were to get his views on current day affairs. As Bollywood's leading superstar, I knew he would be a big hit with them. In our conference room, among the topics that came up for discussion as front page story ideas, was student suicides. They were happening with alarming regularity. And for petty reasons. Like failure in exams; failure to secure seats in top-notch institutions because of high cut-off percentages; wrong career decisions forced upon them by indifferent parents whose own aspirations remained unfulfilled; and also because of unrequited love and broken relationships, addiction to drugs, poverty, sexual abuse at home. The number of suicides among students in India was among the highest in the world.
Salman shook his head in disbelief. "What's wrong with you people, why do you commit suicide?" he lashed out at the journalism students angrily. "At your age, tell me how bad can your circumstances be? Are they so terrible and beyond hope that you're ready to kill yourselves and leave behind grieving parents who will forever carry the burden of your irresponsible decision?"
I was surprised by his reaction. People look at suicide differently. Some have sympathy for those who've killed themselves. Others see it as the ultimate in selfish behavior. And, until recently, anybody attempting to commit suicide became a criminal in the eyes of the law. Under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), a suicide bid was punishable with imprisonment for a year, or with a fine, or with both. Imagine the irony. Somebody who had given up on life and then failed in their attempt to take it was made to feel not only like a loser by society, but also a criminal by the Indian judicial system. Could there be a more bitter pill to swallow? Or a greater ignominy to live down? Fortunately, the government has now decriminalised suicide attempts. Confused people are asking, if it's no longer a crime, does that make it legal?
The things you're killing yourselves for today, will not even be worth losing a night's sleep for when you're 50. Salman Khan
I remembered Salman when I read of the emotional breakdown of students giving their HSC exams recently. To the concern of their parents and teachers, the already stressed students had the harrowing experience of not getting their hall tickets on time, and then finding they had been allotted the wrong exam centres. Question papers were leaked. Disabled students did not get writers to help them give the exams. Students were given wrong question papers. Or found questions in the papers that were not in their syllabus. They were not able to reach their exam centres on time because of traffic congestion caused by political rallies, bad roads, taxi and auto strikes. They couldn't study in peace because of noisy celebrations of festivals that fell during the exams. Or had to give back-to-back exams without a break for revision. It was one thing or another.
When men of my age were boys growing up, the only fear we had was that our fathers would break our heads if we didn't do well in our HSC exams. It ended there. But it's different today. An HSC student's study load is extremely heavy. And the percentage they've got to secure if they want admission in a prestigious institution for further studies is impossible for most. But even that's no guarantee of a seat in some professional college teaching medicine, engineering, business, accountancy, law, architecture, hotel management and fashion design. It's just a ticket to the highly-competitive common entrance test that the government conducts at a national level for admission to these colleges. The HSC exams have become a do-or-die shot for the scholarly types wanting to further their learning. Some do, some die—they kill themselves when they fail to pass the test or don't get into institutions of their choice.
Salman could not understand why teenage collegians on the threshold of life were getting depressed over poor grades and committing suicide. He was a college dropout himself. Citing his own struggles, the actor told the journalism students in my office, "The HSC is not the mother of all exams. You must know that you will never be remembered for your scores, but for what you do with your results and your life eventually." Over coffee, he gave them a final bit of advice, "The average lifespan of an Indian is 70 years. Parents should counsel their children. So what if you failed your board exams at 17? How does it matter if you got ditched at 22? That's no age to give up and die. Appear for the exams again. And again. Maybe you will pass it at 18. Or 19. Doesn't matter. You've got decades in front of you. Life is not running away. Nor is love. You got ditched at 22. Okay, grieve over it. Give your next relationship time. You'll find somebody else to love at 23, 24, 25... somebody better. There's no shelf life for love. No expiry date. The things you're killing yourselves for today, will not even be worth losing a night's sleep for when you're 50."